A fascinating fictionalized biography – based on facts – about Alva Smith Vanderbilt, the “social queen” of the Gilded Age. When Alva reached a marriageable age, her family had lost most of its money. Alva married William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of The Commodore (the Vanderbilt who made all that money in the first place). Their loveless marriage promoted her to the top level of society in the Gilded Age at the turn of the last century.
Alva (and the rest of the Vanderbilts) were snubbed by the current society “queen” Mrs. Aster, but Alva managed to break through the social barrier. She raised three children (Consuelo, Willy and Harold) and managed to behave herself for several decades before divorcing William and reuniting with her first love, Oliver Belmont.
The descriptions of the vacations, the homes, the dances and social activities of the Gilded Age were over-the-top, as were the examples of extravagant expenditures and money squandered. The idea was always to impress others with their riches. I had already read Consuelo’s memoir, The Glitter and the Gold, which I bought at Blenheim Palace when I visited there about a decade ago. It’s a good companion to Fowler’s book. I also saw the movie The Favourite (about Queen Anne, but involving Blenheim and the Churchills) while reading about Alva. The book was great, but by mistake I got the large print version from the library and I did NOT like it. I felt like I was reading an elementary school textbook and the doggone thing weighed about six pounds! Lesson learned.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Instead of the plot thickening in this novel about Alaska, the plot boiled over, then curdled, repeating and repeating and over-dramatizing. How many ways can you describe love when you’re Leni, a teenaged girl? --- oh, let me count the ways – at least three or four dozen -- over and over and over and over. Leni, her mother, Cora, and her Dad, Ernt set out for Alaska to make a new life for themselves because Dad, a Viet Nam veteran, has PTSD. They find a new community of survivors in the cold, dark and lonely outpost of a rugged, beautiful landscape. Leni learns to shoot, trap, take care of goats and chickens, store food for the long winter, survive dirt and lack of money and bears and more. Things are looking good.
But it turns out the most dangerous part of Alaska is Dad. Leni and Cora are constantly walking on eggs, trying not to trigger his rages. He breaks things, hits Cora, threatens neighbors, builds a wall, hits Leni. They forgive him and he does it again and they forgive him and he does it again and again. What are these women waiting for? If I had edited this book, it would have been 150 pages shorter.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
I was disappointed in this book because so many of my friends raved about it. I was expecting too much, apparently. It’s a fictionalized story about a real place: The Tennessee Children’s Home Society. This so-called orphanage was founded and run by Georgia Tann (a real person), who not only provided homes for actual orphaned children, but also “stole” children from families who she thought could not provide properly for them. She found beautiful, blonde children because they were in demand. She sold these children to wealthy couples who were desperate for a child and willing to turn a blind eye to rules and pay dearly for adoptions.
While at the Tennessee Children’s Home, the children were mistreated and neglected. The fictionalized story is about four sisters and a brother: Rill, Lark, Fern, Camellia and Gabion, children of poor river gypsies who in fact were loving parents. Once they were stolen, Rill, the older sister, tries to keep the family together as best she can.
The present-day parallel story is about Avery, a lawyer being groomed to run for the senate. Avery tries to unravel the mystery about a photo she happens to see while visiting someone in a nursing home.
The story got draggy and drawn out in the last 100 pages. I kept thinking, “OK. Time to end it. Finish it. Wind it up and sign off.” I also got confused with the present-day names and the original names of each of the children. I actually had to take notes on who was who. Eh. It was OK. Glad I read it. I didn’t know such things were going on in the 1930s. Maybe lots of people didn’t know.
The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith
I often refer to Alexander McCall Smith’s books as “palate cleansers,” the sort of thing you roll around on your tongue between dinner courses. His books are good for clearing my mind after reading something stormy and deep but before going on to read a big tome of a novel or a complicated psychological thriller. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds was not much of a palate cleanser. It was more like a commonplace after-dinner mint.
It’s an Isabel Dalhousie novel. Isabel publishes a philosophy journal. Snore. ZZZZZ. She solves problems for her friends. Snore. ZZZZZ. And she dithers about everything: Should I say this? should I keep my mouth shut? If I said such and such, then this would happen or would that person answer thus? and so on. Endlessly.
Isabel dithers about this and that, then nothing happens, nobody goes anywhere, the crime/mystery is not solved for certain, and Isabel goes home and has dinner with her husband.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
What would it be like to be “imprisoned” in the Metropol, a four-star Moscow hotel? It doesn’t sound so bad to me. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a gentleman without an occupation (gentlemen are not expected to actually HAVE occupations) is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 to live in a tiny room in the belfry of the Metropol because of a poem he wrote. His accusers claim he has “succumbed to the corruptions of his class.” If he sets foot outside the Metropol, he will be shot. This is Russia, after all. He is 33 years old.
Alexander adapts and makes the best of his iffy situation. We meet the friends he makes -- an opinionated young girl, a glamorous actress, a sly waiter, an American -- and we learn the consequences of these friendships. He grows older, becomes responsible for a young girl of 5 or 6, becomes a waiter, makes plans -- all while living in the belfry, maintaining the composure, the manners, the intelligence and dignity of his class -- a true gentleman. The pace of A Gentleman in Moscow is leisurely and thoughtful until the final pages when Alexander takes matters into his own hands. I loved this book.
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
A cast of about a dozen characters populates the nine short stories in this book. Their backgrounds are often revealed in subsequent stories. Their relationships to other characters are often revealed in subsequent or previous stories. (I sometimes had to look back and re-read a previous passage about a character.) The stories are fantastic: emotional, revealing, sad and humorous, sometimes all at once. Each character’s life and personality gets peeled like an onion.
Some of the characters include: a retired school janitor/former dairy farmer; a widowed high school counselor who is looking for love; a man with a hooker for a mistress; a depressed, hermit-like victim of childhood abuse; and a couple who have a secret camera to spy on their houseguests. And more. Vicky and Lucy Barton, two of the characters, are sisters to Pete, the hermit. All three Barton siblings grew up poorer than poor, victims of abuse and neglect and targets for the neighbors’ gossip. Then Lucy writes a memoir. We never get to find out what the memoir was like . . . my only regret. I loved the rich characters and their intertwined, intimate connections to each other.